Friday, May 16, 2014

2014 National Bike to Work Day!

Today was National Bike to Work Day! 

What is National Bike to Work Day?
Bike to Work Day began in 1956[1] to celebrate and bring awareness to the option of commuting to work by bicycle. It is part of Bike to Work Month and the culmination of Bike to Work Week. In St. Louis, Bike to Work Day is the same as National Bike to Work Day, which, as far as I can figure, is the third Friday in May each year (May 16, 2014, May 17, 2013...)

I had never picked up on the existence of BTWD before last year. Before that, I was vaguely aware that the young and progressive folks in the city had taken up a distinctly non-lycra style of riding. (For those not from around these-here parts, STL City is geographically and politically and culturally distinct from the adjoining STL county, where I've lived the last 9.5 years.) I noticed naked bike rides, and moonlight rambles, and I was intrigued. And then, as I have written before, I started to see bikes everywhere that weren't these carbon-fiber speed machines. They had "swoopy"* frames, and swept handlebars, and rattan baskets, and the little part of me that had a pink swoopy (Huffy) frame circa 1984 wanted in. Badly. Unfortunately, my decision to buy a swoopy-frame bike (Fleur) coincided with a push to pay off some consumer debt, and so in 2013, I missed BTWD because I'd saved up for her*, and she was on order, but had not yet arrived (at the time, I only had my mountain bike, which is still in need of repair, and which is poorly fitted to me at the moment).

*er, that would be "loop" or "step-through" in real bike jargon...
**The Linus is a she, the Trek is he, and the Motobecane is whatever it feels like at any given moment. 

So this is my first official "Bike to Work Day" ride, but probably my dozenth (dozenth? is that a word?) or so bike commute to work, and I rode at least as many times to my church, where I have meetings 3 times per month, music rehearsal 3-5 times per month, and worship 3-5 times per month. So while this was my first BTWD, this is not my first rodeo, right? Right.

Today's Commute.
I left my home at 7:45 a.m., wearing a long-sleeve black tee, skirt, tights, and heels, covered with a black wind-resistant jacket, plus my Nutcase helmet and my cycling gloves. Why does it matter what I wore? Two reasons: (1) it doesn't really matter, that's the point - it doesn't have to be "cycling clothing" to be cycling clothing; and (2) here's why, for me, this is cycling clothing:
  1. Dark top - it was cool today, but my commute has hills, so while I didn't sweat much or for long, I was still pretty warm by the time I finished my 6.5-mile work commute. A dark top hides any perspiration. (Busy patterns and certain materials can, too.)
  2. Skirt - with the dark tights, I was sufficiently warm (it was in the upper 40s/low50s) and my modesty was preserved, and knee-length-or-shorter skirts don't get caught in your crank. 
  3. Heels - I personally prefer to do anything in flat shoes, but my ballet flats died and my replacements haven't yet arrived, so the only court-appropriate dark shoes I had available were low-heeled booties. That said, biking in heels isn't so hard. You use the balls of your feet (where flats and heels alike are flat), and heels are generally more comfortable to bike in than walk in! I have packed the heels and worn flats, too, so that's an option if you are biking with something that will haul your stuff.
So, how did I haul my stuff?
I've been experimenting with the ten-speed for distance, because it's lighter and has more gearing options than the heavy, basket-ed, upright bike. The verdict is still out as to which I prefer, which is a discussion for another post. However, I've decided as I bring some older bikes back into use (the ten-speed was my mom's and is circa early-70s) I'm adding, at least, fenders, a rear reflector, and a small rear rack. The ten-speed's rack is very little, but it worked just fine with my "makeshift pannier" from my early Linus days. I shared a photo of it here.

In my bag, I placed my smaller cross-body purse, cell phone, keys, u-lock, lights, and (after I was warm enough) jacket. The bag has mesh side pockets for bottles, and I use the rear one for my water bottle (I kick it if I use the front pocket). This means I have to stop to use the bottle on my ten-speed (the Linus has a front bottle-ring in the Delano basket; the Trek a bottle cage on the lower frame tube), but that's okay. I fall into the camp of people who don't like to wear cargo when I ride. Not a cross-body purse, not a messenger bag, not a backpack. It's distracting, heavy, or flops around uncomfortably. So cargo capability is my thing.

OK, you're all set. How was the ride? Glorious. Frustrating. Hard. Easy. Worth it. Discouraging. Educational.

Glorious. You can't ask for better than lows in the 40s and highs shy of 70 with no rain or humidity. It's perfect. You're a bit chilly when you start, but don't sweat too much, and the exertion and breeze are positively refreshing. We don't get many days like this in St. Louis, and in my opinion, there's no better way to spend them than on a bike.

Frustrating. I'm struggling with fit and comfort of the drop bars on the ten-speed. It's okay for shorter distances, but my shoulders and neck hurt, and though it's easier to "shoulder-check" what's going on behind you from a ten-speed, I'd like a mirror. That said, the ride on this bike is stiffer and more narrow than on the Linus, which I consider a drawback, but also the posturing is more aggressive and the bike lighter, which theoretically, with the skinny tires, could make hills less obnoxious... 

Hard. ...if I had added a little air to my tires. They felt pretty good when I checked them, but I ignored the nagging feeling I should check the actual PSI (I aim for 90 on the skinny tires, as recommended), and they were a little soggy, which made my ride positively sloggy. Also, shifting on this bike (downtube shifters, no individual gear "landing spot" so you can be stuck mid-shift) is hard. So all in all, I found myself wondering whether I do really need more gears on the Linus and if so how many and fighting my way up the saddest inclines (and hating the real ones). Dumb. I should have checked the PSI.

Easy. I can get there from here and I've done it before. The distance is do-able, and had I not stopped twice for water and to let traffic pass, I probably would have arrived at least five minutes quicker than my Linus pace. 

Worth it. Bonus: adding in my Cycling Savvy knowledge meant that my commute on Clayton Road and Forsyth was so much nicer, because I was better able to navigate rush-hour traffic in a way that felt safe and effective. Unfortunately...

Discouraging. No matter how safe and visible you are, some people are frustrated, impatient, don't understand the rules of the road (for motorists or cyclists) and decide to take that out on you by honking, swerving, and passing too close for comfort. That happened today on my least-favorite stretch of road, and it's put me off that part of the route, possibly for good now. I'm officially actively campaigning for a bike thoroughfare that connects Manchester Road to Clayton Road west of Brentwood and East of Woodlawn. The options right now? Frankly, they suck. For everyone. (My reward on McKnight for getting through angry motorists on the 4-lane roads bumper-to-bumper 2-lane traffic, followed by a hilly ride through a busy highway/street intersection. Inhaling exhaust is not why I chose to ride. Blerg.)

Educational. Every. time. I. ride., I learn a little more about what works and what doesn't. Using my Cycling Savvy skills on Clayton Road made that part of my commute an absolute breeze. And on more than one occasion, I figured that I do prefer the upright Linus, but I still wonder whether I need to play with the gearing, or maybe even shift the stable around someday. Maybe the right bike is none of the three, but has elements of all three? A decision for another day.

Now what?
Tonight, I'm riding my bike from my office to meet friends, and then hitching a (car) ride home. I'm so glad I rode in, and so looking forward to a group ride and picnic tomorrow, but tonight I'm too tired to navigate an imperfect route in the dark, with sore shoulders and lingering frustration from the aggressive motorist. Which is to say that every little bit counts and it's okay to keep trying new things. 

I rode today. Full stop. That I'm not putting in the full 13-14 miles is okay and doesn't diminish the experience in the least. And I'm quite sure that my route isn't right yet, so I'm going to keep experimenting, or, if I do move from my current house someday (likely), I will absolutely be taking into account my access to bikeable destinations and effective mass-transit options, and giving them proper weight. 

Did you ride today for National Bike to Work Day? How was your ride?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Cycling Savvy: A Story in Three Rides

Today, I'm reviewing the Cycling Savvy course. This is one of the hardest posts I've had to write in five years of blogging (I have a second blog that covers a crazy-range of topics that I started in January 2009). Why is it so hard?

1. I have a million things to say.

2. I was wrong.

First, a story of three rides.

One/Before. Last Saturday (May 3rd), Melissa came over and we rode together to Clayton to test out my work route, which has generally involved the following:

  • Left from a suburban side street onto a 2-lane road with a center stripe
  • Access the sidewalk and a crosswalk to cross a major arterial
  • Ride through 1/4mi of parking lots to access the neighborhood behind a strip mall
  • 2 mi of neighborhood riding
  • 1 mi of riding on 4-lane road
  • 1 mi of riding on 2-lane roads (center stripe)
  • 1/2 mi of riding on 4+ lane arterial
  • Access sidewalk/crosswalk to cross said arterial
  • 1/2 mi of neighborhood riding to access bike path
  • 1 mi of bike path riding up a very steep hill
  • Access sidewalk/crosswalk to cross a third arterial
  • 1/2 mi of city-center riding on streets
Melissa patiently endured the first five bullet points, but suggested that we try a different route that involved one alternate (2-lane) road through a neighborhood, followed by about a mile or so on a major arterial. I looked at her sideways, then agreed. 

It was easier, but I also immediately realized that I was appreciative of her company - both because she was more comfortable riding "as traffic" (rather than alongside it, or not with it at all, which was my preference) and because I felt much more visible and tolerable as a couple of bikes than one (mostly, I thought it would be less tempting to to motorists to run both of us over and face two manslaughter/murder charges).

While it was easier, more direct, definitely flatter*, and more pleasant than riding alone in my customary route and manner, I still elected to ride home (after we split up) in a way that was familiar and comfortable: 1/2 mile on an arterial, riding on the curbside 1/3 of the lane, and, though I worked my way to the left turn-pocket to access the south-bound road, once on it, I rode largely in the bike lane/glorified shoulder provided, which required me to merge with traffic when I crossed Highway 40, and to dodge road detritus in the pedestrian/bike lane, which is not swept separately, and which accumulates the crud that is swept out naturally by normal motorist activity. 

Though I made every effort to be polite, predictable, and prompt (I was on The Radish 10-speed and faster than I can be on Fleur), I got honked at three separate times (at least once in a not-nice way; the other two were ambiguous double honks - were they acknowledging me or frustrated that I was impeding their travel for a few seconds? It wasn't clear).

I found myself looking forward to - and, honestly? dreading - my upcoming Cycling Savvy courses (classroom session to be held Wednesday and Train Your Bike/Tour of St. Louis to be held the following Saturday). On one hand, something clearly wasn't right, because if cycling is this much of a pain when in traffic, no one would ride. On the other hand, negotiating more directly with cars seemed like an awful plan. I just wanted protected bike lanes, preferably away from traffic. 

*Funny, but they generally find or make flat and straight spots for major roads to maximize visibility and minimize the effort necessary to travel them...

Two/During. On Wednesday, I showed up for the CS classroom session. Mary and I were the students. I drove (three reasons: distance/8 miles, time/had to drive home to let dog out, and light/full darkness would fall before the course was over at 9:30pm). I literally thought the entire way to the class that I would appreciate the tips and use them when I had to interact with traffic, but that I'd continue to want to advocate for separated bike facilities after the class was over. And, three hours later, I could have talked bike tips and tricks for three hours longer. I left with a mixture of a nagging desire not to interact with traffic in meaningful ways, but a fundamental understanding of why my instincts to hug the side of the road were about the most dangerous options I could pursue. Sigh.

As late as Friday night, I was feeling really anxious. I couldn't decide whether to take Fleur, and labor up the hills with only three gears, or take The Radish, which offered ten finicky speeds (essentially, five speeds, because I usually stay in the lower of the two major gears) and less weight, but promised neck, back, and wrist pain from the aggressive road-bike/drop-bar positioning). I ultimately selected The Radish, because it was better suited to the hills and distance, and because it was easier to hoist onto the bike rack (the straight mixte-style top bar is far easier use with the mounts on the rack, and The Radish is probably ten pounds lighter than Fleur, who is increasingly unwieldy to lift due to her baskets).

I drove, again because I wasn't sure about my willingness to navigate streets on the way home, and because I wasn't sure my legs would tolerate 15 miles of riding above and beyond morning bike training and a roughly 10-mile ride around St. Louis (in retrospect, this second issue was spot-on. I was exhausted after 7 hours of bikey-bikeness).

The morning generally taught skills with which I was pretty familiar, if by different (or no) names - how to stop quickly; how to use your front brake without eating pavement; how to turn on a dime (much easier without massive toe-overlap, FYI), and how to avoid road obstacles without swerving into traffic. I'm really good at stoppping. ;)

We then had lunch and waited for a couple of folks (Monica and Mike), former CS grads who had agreed to ride with us for the Tour of St. Louis. We had lunch at Kaldi's and then rode together, in pairs, to the parking lot of the Cheshire Hotel. I thought we were going to discuss the route in further detail and take a water break. 

Ha. Haha. Ha.

No, we were told to take Clayton to Skinker, take a left, and then go into Forest Park and wait for the rest of the group. One person at a time. My adrenaline immediately spiked; I regretted the second cup of coffee. I was practically vibrating. I let Mary go first (she's so brave).

Using the skills we learned in class, I was able to ride and behave in a way that was predictable and visible to the traffic around me, and I did it. And it was fine. 

Photo credit: Karen Karabell (my editing).
We had several additional individual challenges that helped push us beyond our comfort zones while reassuring us that we were operating in a safe and comfortable way. And, little by little, it started to really sink in. It doesn't matter where you are, or how many cars there are, you can get there from here in a way that makes you visible and relevant to the folks with whom you're sharing the road. It was an amazing day. (More photos, here.)

Photo credit: Harold Karabell (my editing).

And somewhere in there, it hit me. I was wrong. We don't need bike lanes. We need cyclists and motorists to better understand how to interact with one another so that we can share the roads in a way that makes travel safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

More photos, here.

Three/After. And so, the next morning, when we were out of dishwasher soap (okay) and out of coffee (crisis!), I didn't hesitate to grab my helmet and unlatch the folding baskets on Fleur and take her the 1/2 mile to the grocery store.  

Shopping by bike is easy and fun.

On the way to and from, I took the lane on the 2-land (striped) road near my house, and communicated clearly with the cars around me. 

No one honked. The drivers who passed me went clear into the other other lane to pass. At a light, when I encouraged a driver to come past me to allow her to go right while I waited for the green to go straight, she gave me a big smile and indicated she was staying put. And that reminds us both that the person on the bike and the person behind the wheel are people -- we are more than our chosen methods of transportation.

The emotional and physical journey of this past week has been empowering and incredibly rewarding. I'm more excited to ride than ever.  

I was so thrilled, I bought a geranium.

Happy rider.

Post Script:

I continue to understand the desire for bicycle infrastructure. The instinct to stay out of the way of motorists' is strong and makes sense, until you view a cyclist from the perspective of the motorist. You are simply out of the way, out of the line-of-sight, and out of the minds of the motorists when you are on the sidewalk, on the shoulder, or in most bike lanes as they are designed in most places in America. I understand and appreciate that the ability to cycle effectively in traffic is a privilege and that this manner of cycling may not be appealing or appropriate for the very young, the very old, or those who are differently-abled. My challenge is to those developing infrastructure to consider that the designs we take for granted (sidewalks and sidepaths and bike lanes running immediately next to motorways) might not be the best way we can accommodate travel by all of our citizens. Further, a dedicated bike- or multi-use-trail is lovely, but is only as useful as its starting point, end point, and the destinations to which it can connect us along the way. I believe that creating more paths like Grant's Trail that connect our communities (eg, with transportation, rather than recreation, as the purpose for their creation), creating more bike/ped pass-throughs where side streets end and effectively disconnect many non-motorists from adjacent communities, and ensuring everyone knows the rights and responsibilities of road use will ensure that no matter the destination or the mode of transport, you can get there from here

UPDATE 8-2-2014:
I was searching for a post about something else on FoS and came across this repost of my CyclingSavvy review and found the discussion and theories about my positions interesting. To respond:
(1) I'm a fan of well-planned infrastructure.
(2) I prefer not to ride in traffic but want to be as safe and comfortable when I do as possible.
(3) Until or unless we devise a perfect cycling and driving plan, CyclingSavvy is an amazing and important tool and I can't recommend it enough.
(4) What we do need, more than anything else, is better education for road users.
Happy riding!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Just Ride Already, Will You?

I posted on April 11th that I've been struggling with returning to riding. It was a long winter and I was still recovering from a nasty chest cold when daylight savings time rolled back around. And then I ran out of excuses, but I still didn't ride. I feel like I've spent the better part of the past six weeks looking at the two bicycles in my living room (Fleur and The Radish) as if I don't know how they work. None of it makes sense. I really want to ride, and yet for some reason, the idea of commuting to work or church is met with a huge wall of emotional resistance.

Riders' Block, if you will.

In some ways, I sort of wonder if ignorance was bliss last year. I read a lot of blogs like Lovely Bike and LGRAB and Simply Bike, where the message is just ride; it's not scary, it's fun! And so, I did. As I started cycling, I rediscovered my Twitter account and have started following a lot of other avid cyclists, many of whom are staunch advocates for ditching the car entirely, for infrastructure improvements, and for shaping the car vs. bike discussion in any manner of ways. I devoured as much as I could in order that I might discover tips and tricks, or avoid problems other riders had encountered. And when there was something that frustrated a rider, I could sometimes revel in the idea that things that weren't easy or pleasant for me weren't always easy or pleasant for others.

Perhaps it was continuing to digest all of this information during months when cycle commuting felt out of the question - icy, hilly roads with heavy and rapid traffic patterns, and a sun that insisted on setting before I would get up in the morning or leave the office in the evening - but it started to feel complicated.

It's not complicated. My brain is trying to make it tricky, but it simply isn't. I just need to ride.

So today's post is in preparation of three bike-related events I have coming up in the next week or so:

  1. I'm taking a fun ride with Melissa this weekend;
  2. I'm taking a Cycling Savvy class (at Melissa's gentle suggestion) next week; and 
  3. I'm going on the local Cycling Savvy bike ride next weekend.
I am looking forward to having a reason to get on the bike, and frankly, someone to keep me company. Melissa and I will be exploring the frustrating parts of my bike-to-work route and trying some possible alternatives. And, while I've made it clear in prior posts that I'm on the side of protected bike lanes and more cycling infrastructure (I don't particularly enjoy riding with or in traffic), there are parts of St. Louis City and County where you must engage in vehicular cycling, and becoming more familiar and more comfortable in that role will hopefully kick the anxiety portion of my not. riding. Finally, a group ride will hopefully help to connect me with other riders in my local community (and perhaps, other relative beginners).

So, a shout-out to Melissa, because whether she realizes it or not, she's really the rallying force that's getting me back on the saddle, and soon. 

Let's go for a ride.